Reflections on Trotsky
Revolutions give rise to myths, and these myths then help to shape the course of later revolutions. In the 19th century, revolutionaries everywhere saw analogies to what had been happening in France between 1789 and 1799 (or, if they were Bonapartists, between 1789 and 1814). Every upheaval, however insignificant, was interpreted in terms of recent French history, usually misunderstood. Historians set the tone, and journalists caught the infection from them. When a rising took place, people referred knowingly to tumbrils and barricades. (Actually there had been no barricades in the revolutionary Paris of 1789-99, but it was assumed that there must have been because barricades figured in the insurrections of 1830 and 1848). Radicals came to be known as Jacobins, or if they were somewhat less radical, as Girondins. The nature of the real dispute between these factions was ignored. Robespierre, according to taste, was a bloodthirsty despot, an incorruptible republican, or the leader of the middle class, intent on keeping the proletariat in its place. The fact that there was no proletariat, merely a mob of unemployed and casual laborers of the sort that Marxists later came to call lumpenproletarians, was conveniently overlooked.
Above all, there was Thermidor. On the 27th of July 1794—the 9th of Thermidor, according to the short-lived republican calendar—Robespierre was overthrown by a hostile majority in the Convention, and the reign of terror came to an end. Thermidor pleased the liberals, but it distressed the more radical democrats, because the Thermidorians did away with Equality and instead put Liberty first. Liberty of course was bourgeois liberty—freedom to buy and sell. Thermidor was the triumph of the bourgeoisie, which on that day won control of the Revolution and held power for five years, until Bonaparte chased the lawyers out and established his personal dictatorship. But France remained bourgeois, and in 1830 the heirs of the Thermidorians once more returned to power, led by Louis Philippe and Guizot; only now they were called Liberals and wore sober frock-coats instead of fanciful neo-classical dress. By 1840, the Socialists had begun to see through all this, and eventually Marx came along and explained that the French Revolution had really been a bourgeois revolution, though draped in Roman costume, and that the “heroic illusions” of its chief actors were an unconscious means of promoting the drab reality of modern industrial-capitalist civilization.
This interpretation—which was in tune with Hegel’s sardonic view of world history as a procession of stages whose meaning is concealed from the participants (though plain to the philosopher)—had a sobering effect upon those who understood it. On others it acted as a tonic: if the secret of the bourgeois revolution had at last been pierced, it should now be possible to make a proletarian revolution, which would pass beyond the bourgeois stage and found Equality on the rule of the toilers. Hints that the toilers might be incapable of ruling, and that the proletarian revolution might turn out to be just another historical masquerade leading to a new form of inequality, were dismissed as unworthy skepticism. There were some warning voices, but in general the Russian revolutionary intellectuals, who from about 1840 onward began to ponder these matters, refused to be deterred. Their business, as they saw it, was to make sure that next time there was no Thermidor, and that the Revolution went on in permanence.
The relevance of this theme to the life and work of the man who, more than any other, made of the Permanent Revolution a working concept and a political model, requires no emphasis in these days, when Communists the world over debate among themselves what went wrong in the Soviet Union after 1917 (or, once more according to taste, after 1921, when Lenin and Trotsky suppressed the Kronstadt rising and banned all factions within the ruling party). Any lingering doubts as to the central importance of the French example for the Bolsheviks—all of them, including Stalin—are stilled by the perusal of Mr. Isaac Deutscher’s massive three-part biography of Trotsky, the third and concluding volume of which has now appeared.1 The literary merits of this work are considerable, but they alone do not account for the fascination of Mr. Deutscher’s theme. Nor does the stature of his protagonist, though this final volume, which records Trotsky’s eleven years in exile until his death in 1940, derives a tragic quality from the personality of the chief character. Prometheus on his rock, Lear wandering about his blasted heath—these comparisons spring readily to a mind nurtured on literature, and Mr. Deutscher misses few opportunities to ram the point home. He is entitled to his hero-worship, as others are entitled to their feeling that Trotsky—like other characters of tragedy ancient and modern—was largely instrumental in causing disasters to accumulate wherever he went: down to the personal tragedies which in his closing years struck within the inmost family circle. (His eldest son died mysteriously in Paris at the height of the Great Purge, a daughter from an earlier marriage committed suicide.) The harrowing tale unfolds to the last unbearable chapter in Mexico, where the assassin struck down an ailing, lonely, embittered man, whose creation lay in ruins, and who at the close of his life had begun to doubt his own inmost certainties. It is a story often told and destined one day to find its Buechner or its Brecht, for nothing is more inherently dramatic than this terrible finale to a life so crammed with triumphs and disasters; so paradigmatic too—as in a different key was Marx’s stoical fortitude amid the grinding pressures of the Victorian era—of our turbulent and blood-stained epoch. Here one merely records that Trotsky has been fortunate in his biographer, for it would have been easy to sensationalize the subject, or to drown it in learned scholasticism. Mr. Deutscher has avoided these pitfalls, and his readers have cause to be grateful.
They will be Wise, however, not to regard this impassioned account of Trotsky’s last years as a key to the historical lock which Trotsky himself failed to turn. Mr. Deutscher shares most of the illusions of his hero, and where he has discarded them, he substitutes others. Thus he has at last worked himself free from the doctrinaire strait jacket imposed upon other writers by Trotsky’s own interpretation of the “Soviet Thermidor” (in the first two volumes of the trilogy this emancipation was only half-complete). But while he now recognizes that most of these analogies were based on a misunderstanding, he himself goes on to promote new confusions. If Stalin is no longer the “grave-digger of the revolution,” then he must be a combination of Robespierre and Napoleon incarnate, and his quasi-Bonapartist use of the Red Army to “export the revolution” from 1939 onward is obliquely defended by Mr. Deutscher as the only way out, and, all things considered, a “progressive” phenomenon. If Trotsky was wrong about the Soviet Union being on the road to a bourgeois restoration, and if his former adherents were also mistaken in calling its system “state capitalism,” then it seems to follow for Mr. Deutscher that perhaps it is socialism after all, though to be sure the full socialist content still has to burst through the bureaucratic integument. These apologetics—an aspect of Mr. Deutscher’s unwavering fidelity to Lenin and Leninism—occupy a not inconsiderable part of his third volume. He is generally fair-minded even in dealing with the “literary Trotskisants”—a number of names familiar to Americans are mentioned—who after 1940 broke away from Communism altogether; but his own essential orthodoxy is never left in doubt. Whatever the “literary intellectuals”—he is too polite to call them drawing-room Bolsheviks—may think about the matter, Mr. Deutscher’s faith in the inherently progressive role of the USSR has not been shaken even by the Stalinist experience. That chapter anyhow is closed; and does not history consist of a long list of just such episodes, which for all their incidental horrors have brought mankind a step nearer to the promised land?
Not that he is inclined to overlook the cost. There is in this third volume a blood-freezing account of the 1929-30 “liquidation of the kulaks” which conveys some sense of the havoc wreaked upon the countryside by Stalin’s war against the peasantry. And there are some grim pages on the slaughter of the Old Guard in 1936-8, though otherwise the great purge—the Yezhovchina—which swept away so many countless people, appears only as the backdrop to what really interests him: the duel between his protagonist and the dictator in the Kremlin. Was it for this that so many thousands died and so many millions were packed off to Siberia? From Mr. Deutscher’s account, one might almost suppose that Stalin staged the great massacre merely in order to affirm his personal hold over his own deeply riven faction. No doubt the purge had a logic of its own: once set in motion, the avalanche swept on, until millions of people not remotely connected with the power struggle found themselves in the camps. But surely at some stage a decision must have been taken to let the NKVD loose upon the whole terrorized country, until every vestige of opposition had been rooted out and every last individual in the whole of Russia battered into unthinking obedíence. Mr. Deutscher half recognizes the probability of some such purpose. He points out that the purge prevented the bureaucracy—only the bureaucracy?—from settling down and developing a dangerous esprit de corps. But he is reluctant to investigate the full logic of totalitarianism, and thus tends to remain within the confines of Trotsky’s own vocabulary: the purge was the major instrument of Stalinism, and Stalinism was the way in which backward Russia revenged itself upon the Revolution. Further than that he is not prepared to go.
This approach has its difficulties. Their nature is revealed in the densely packed chapter of Mr. Deutscher’s third volume in which he comes to grips with Trotsky’s own interpretation of Stalinism, as set out notably in one of his last writings, The Revolution Betrayed (1937). This, as Mr. Deutscher points out, contains Trotsky’s “classical indictment of bureaucracy.” It also embodies Trotsky’s tentative revision of his own earlier (and quite misleading) discussion of what he had called the “Soviet Thermidor.” Here it is necessary to bear in mind that this particular metaphor had already been employed in the savage factional, in-fighting of the late 20′s. In the second volume of his study (published in 1959) Mr. Deutscher gave some examples of how in 1926-7 Trotsky and Zinoviev fell back on this time-honored slogan when they had run out of other arguments. Talk of “Thermidor” was enough to make the strongest men blanch. In July 1927, five months before his expulsion from the party, Trotsky temporarily unnerved the Old Bolsheviks on the Central Control Commission with a speech on the fall of Robespierre and the destruction of the Jacobin regime. Earlier, Bukharin—the intellectual leader of the right wing—reacted with hysterical fury when charged with encouraging “Thermidorian” tendencies. All the factions were in the grip of genuine fear lest they unwittingly enact a repetition of that historic disaster. But it was a two-edged weapon: by 1929, when Stalin turned against Bukharin and began his war upon the peasantry, the exiled Trotskyists—then still living under a relatively liberal regime, and even allowed to circulate their manifestoes—began to wonder whether after all Stalin might not be in the “historic” succession to Robespierre, in which case they were the Thermidorians! The thought alarmed them to such a degree that by 1932 most of them had made their peace with Stalin (not that it saved them in the end). Unluckily for him, these were just the years when Trotsky, from his exile in Turkey, was least able to influence events. Left to brood in isolation, he readily convinced himself that his supporters had sold the pass, and that he alone saw matters in their true light. Stalin could not carry the Five Year Plan through! Or if he did, it was not the plan that Trotsky would have carried through: not a socialist plan, but a bureaucratic one! By 1937 this had become the new line imposed upon the Trotskyist movement: the Soviet bureaucracy had “confiscated” the Revolution for its own benefit, though it was still the ruling caste of a “workers’ state.” It was, to be sure, a tyrannical and parasitic caste, which must be swept away to make “Soviet democracy” possible; yet it was also the guardian of public property. As long as it defended the new “production relations” against the world bourgeoisie, and against bourgeois tendencies at home, its historic role was “progressive,” and Trotsky would go on defending it, even though its leader slaughtered all the Trotskyists in the internment camps (Mr. Deutscher suggests that Trotsky was unaware of this) and in general did his best to imitate Ivan the Terrible. Caught in these insoluble contradictions, the Trotskyist movement—never more than a loose assemblage of small groups and individuals—destroyed itself in furious arguments, which in the end left Trotsky almost totally bereft of organized support.
In fact, the whole debate was unreal. A “workers’ state” is no more conceivable than a “peasants’ state,” and the notion that the USSR was at any time after 1917 close to becoming the “Soviet democracy” of Lenin’s or Trotsky’s imagination, belongs to the category of what Marx called “heroic illusions,” along with the Rousseauist dreams of Robespierre. Trotsky could have solved his problem by conceding frankly that “proletarian dictatorship” was an impossibility, and the proletariat not fit to rule. In the closing months of his life he actually came near to confronting this truth, at any rate to the extent of suggesting that, if the European working class did not seize power in the wake of the Second World War, the whole Marxist perspective might have to be written off. What really needed to be written off was not Marxism, but the myth of the October Revolution; but then Trotsky never drew any distinction between the two. In his eyes, the revolutionary message of Marxism had been validated by what Lenin had done in 1917. If in 1937 it looked as though the Revolution had been aborted, the disaster must be a temporary setback. Otherwise what would be left of the original message?
To these important problems Mr. Deutscher is not an altogether safe guide, since his own preconceptions incline him to believe that Trotsky’s analysis “still offers the best clue to the subsequent social evolution”: that is, to Khrushchev’s eclectic aim of eliminating the worst features of Stalinism, while preserving the new class relationships. He argues that even in 1937 Trotsky did not really envisage anything so Utopian as the total elimination of the bureaucracy, merely a drastic curtailment of its privileges; and he suggests that this is currently being undertaken. On which the only possible comment is that in this case the Soviet “toilers” will have to go on being content with very little. It is all very well for Mr. Deutscher to write: “The problem of a bureaucracy in a workers’ state is indeed so new and complex that it allows little or no certitude.” However uncertain other things may be, it is undeniable that in what he is pleased to call a “workers’ state,” the workers are not the rulers but the ruled. This doubtless is inevitable; and moreover, it is perfectly compatible with the usual definition of socialism (public ownership), though not with Communism (common ownership). But it is not what the Bolsheviks set out to accomplish in 1917, and what Communists the world over are today still being promised, and promising others. Mr. Deutscher, a disillusioned ex-Trotskyist himself, is at pains to correct the misconceptions of his protagonist, but only in the interest of assuring the reader that the imperfect realization of the original purpose, in the present-day USSR and the other Soviet bloc regimes, is about all that can be expected in this world. He is clearly right; what may strike his readers as odd is his evident conviction that the original plan is still worth pursuing.
The revolutionary in politics: this is not in actual fact the central theme of Mr. Deutscher’s now completed biography, but he might easily have organized his three volumes around it, and it would have been difficult to blame him. Trotsky is the classic case of the revolutionary leader who is also an intellectual in the fullest sense of that much abused term: not one who makes use of other people’s ideas, but one who lives his own thoughts, and whose commitment to an idea overrides all other loyalties. It is only when someone of Trotsky’s stature appears that the full meaning of the phenomenon becomes evident. Here is the “union of theory and practice” incarnate in an orator who is also a statesman, a theorist who can move crowds, organize government departments, set armies on the march; a “professional revolutionary” with a matchless style and an educated taste for literature. No wonder he fascinated the youth of three continents. Is it possible, at our present distance from the scene, to find a niche for him, to bracket him with other major figures of recent history?
Not with Marx. Superficial resemblances to the contrary notwithstanding, the two men do not really inhabit the same universe—a circumstance Trotsky, not otherwise given to modesty, was always ready to acknowledge. The difference does not lie merely in their respective intellectual endowments, though Trotsky was aware that abstract theorizing of the kind that was child’s play to Marx, was beyond his own capacity. There is also the difference in social circumstances and historical background. For all his radicalism and the revolutionary fling he enjoyed in his youth, Marx was profoundly integrated within the German and European culture of his age. At the deepest level, he was at one with the social order whose doom he prophesied. There is something very revealing in his public status as a famous, learned, and somewhat irascible scholar of the late 19th century: a true Great Victorian, the contemporary (and admirer) of Darwin. One need only read his correspondence with Engels to see how profoundly both men were rooted in the conditions of their time and how much, for all their contemptuous indifference to the creeds upheld by majority opinion, they enjoyed being alive at that particular moment. No, Trotsky does not—except for certain inherited sensibilities of temper—relate back to Marx. Curiously enough, he has more in common with Marx’s arch-enemy, Michael Bakunin, and not only because Bakunin was a perpetual rebel who died in exile. He shares with the founder of Russian Anarchism a certain romantic conception of “the revolution” as a vast popular uprising against authority—all authority—which Marx (not to mention Engels) would have reproved. If the surviving Trotskyist sects in Europe, Asia, and Latin America have over the years become the successors of the vanished Anarchist and Anarcho-Syndicalist movements—one need only read their pamphlet literature to catch the essential similarity—they can find retrospective warrant for this curious “deviation” in Trotsky’s personality and writings. With a vastly better intellectual equipment and far greater literary talent than Bakunin, Trotsky nonetheless had something of his romantic utopianism, his faith in “the people,” his individualism, even his vanity: traits which Lenin sternly repressed in himself. Not surprisingly, a good many people found Trotsky intolerable.
This is an aspect of his hero’s personality that troubles his biographer. Not that Mr. Deutscher is inclined to minimize Trotsky’s literary and intellectual gifts: if anything he makes too much of them, notably in the first of his three volumes, where even Trotsky’s pre-revolutionary journalism is extolled in somewhat excessive terms. The awkward fact is that it is not easy to be both a profound thinker and an effective pamphleteer. Marx managed it, but then he was unique. In Trotsky’s case, it is possible to feel that the style of his pamphleteering was frequently superior to the thought-content that went into it. At times—e.g. in The Revolution Betrayed—form and content came together to make a real unity. More often the rhetorician took over from the theorist, and produced brilliant writing when what was required was hard thinking about unpalatable circumstances.
Mr. Deutscher, in his concluding volume, praises Trotsky’s pamphlets on the German situation in the early 30′s, just before Hitler’s rise to power. Having been among those who were privileged to read them as they came off the press, I am in a position to assure the student of Mr. Deutscher’s volume that he is quite wrong about their influence, which was close to nil, and about their grasp of the German situation, which was vague in the extreme. They were indeed very brilliant, and of course vastly superior to the lunatic Comintern literature, which treated Hitler as a minor nuisance compared to the real enemy, the Social-Democrats; but that is not saying a great deal. By any reasonable standard of political analysis, Marxist or otherwise, Trotsky’s writings of the period must be judged a brilliant failure (though curiously he showed some grasp of the economic logic of fascism in an article he published in, of all places, the quarterly Foreign Affairs in April 1934: a year after Hitler had come to power). It is not enough to say that in his pamphlets of 1931-2 he made mincemeat of the Comintern line; of course he did. Anyone outside that madhouse in Moscow could see that Germany was heading straight for catastrophe. What he failed to do was to indicate an alternative to the official Communist line, which really amounted to letting Hitler seize power, in the expectation that he would shortly be overthrown by “the workers.” Trotsky was almost as romantic about the capacity of “the workers” to resist a totalitarian dictatorship as were the German Communists, and as innocent as they were of any understanding of the real nature of “capitalist crisis,” to employ the term then much in vogue. Moreover, he had not the faintest notion of what German National Socialism was really about, what were the emotional springs that fed it, and how far it could be expected to go. After the lapse of a generation one still recalls the amazement with which his own supporters greeted his confident announcement that the Storm Troopers-being of course “petty bourgeois”—were “human dust” which would evaporate at the first sight of a united working class. This was sad nonsense, though Mr. Deutscher treats it with dead seriousness, thereby giving at least one of his readers the impression that he has not learned much from the experience of the great catastrophe.
In reality the German debacle, and the simultaneous emergence of Stalinism in Russia as, so to speak, a going concern and a system of government, put the quietus upon the sort of revolutionary socialism that Trotsky believed in. His biographer has failed to grasp the connection between the Russian and the German catastrophes, because his gaze is too exclusively fixed on the bizarre dialectic of the Stalin-Trotsky duel for control of a totally disoriented world Communist movement. Moreover, his “realism” does not quite extend to a realization that Hitler, no less than Stalin, had something to teach the Communists. What he taught them (and what they subsequently applied in practice when their turn came in 1945) was the technique of the quasi-legal coup d’état and the subsequent reign of terror. The real answer to Hitler’s seizure of power in Berlin in 1933 was the Communist seizure of power in Prague fifteen years later: using very similar methods, with the ailing Benes substituted for Hindenburg. Since then there has scarcely been a Communist party in the world that has not tried its hand at the game. In 1933 all this still lay in the future, and Trotsky was the last to perceive the lesson of events, which was that the age of genuine, spontaneous, popular revolutions was over except in backward countries, from Cuba to Algeria. Even the October coup of 1917 had not been quite genuine, but it was still backed by a spontaneous mass movement. Since then all successful seizures of power in industrial countries have had to be elaborately organized, with the masses no less than their “leading cadres” drilled beforehand. Backward countries, of course, are another matter, which may account for the fact that Trotskyist groups have had some successes in Bolivia, Ceylon, and even Algeria, but cannot boast any conquests, however minor, in the industrial centers of the world.
It would not be quite true to say that in the 1930′s no one had grasped this. Toward the end of the decade some people had, but they did not include Trotsky and his orthodox disciples. The point is connected with the wider subject of the intellectual’s role in politics, which is why it is proper to note that Trotsky did not see what was obvious to some people who lacked both his mental powers and his background as leader of a victorious revolution. The explanation clearly is that he had been disoriented precisely by his and Lenin’s triumph in 1917. Indeed he spent the remainder of his life in the blinding glare of this cataclysmic event. Whether Lenin—had he lived—would have done better, is questionable, though he had a marked streak of pragmatic adaptability lacking in both Trotsky and Stalin: “the two ablest men in the Central Committee,” as he remarked on a famous occasion. Mr. Deutscher, who in general tends to see Stalin as the (frequently unconscious) executant of Trotsky’s ideas, is silent on this particular point, though articulate enough on many others. He does have something to say, however, about a controversy which caused bitter dissension in Trotsky’s entourage during his last years: the debate over what came to be known as the “managerial revolution,” that is, the rise of a new ruling stratum. At the risk of boring some readers, this topic must be briefly considered.
It all began—as the reader of Mr. Deutscher’s third volume can discover for himself in detail—with the Italian ex-Trotskyist Bruno Rizzi and his book, La bureaucratisation du monde, published in Paris not long after Trotsky had in 1937 given his own assessment of the “new class.” Today, with the wisdom of hindsight and the accumulated experience of another quarter century, we are inured to the notion of “bureaucratic collectivism” as a new form of class rule; but in 1938-40 Rizzi—and James Burnham, who largely based himself on Rizzi—sounded very shocking. What they proposed was of course unacceptable to Trotsky, for it amounted to saying that the Russian Revolution (like the French before it) had merely replaced one form of exploitation by another. If they were right, the Soviet bureaucracy, which Trotsky saw as a pernicious growth to be removed or at least cut down to size at the first opportunity, was really the essence of the whole matter. “Bureaucratic collectivism” had come to stay. The Bolsheviks had been Utopians, just like the Jacobins before them (save for those like Stalin who had adapted themselves to the new trend). The classless society was an illusion, and the working class, so far from being the harbinger of a new order, was condemned to remain the “mass basis” of a system of inequality.
It is a tribute to Trotsky’s intellectual integrity that, while rejecting this thesis as unproved and improbable, he did not entirely exclude the likelihood that things might indeed go wrong. Writing in September 1939, shortly after the Second World War had broken out, he still maintained that the revolutionary potential of Europe was not exhausted; but for the first time he also envisaged the possibility that the working class might prove unable to throw up an adequate leadership and gain power for itself. In a pronouncement (already referred to above) that startled his supporters, he declared that if at the close of the Second World War there was still no socialist revolution in the West, the Marxist-Leninist perspective would have to be written off: “We would be compelled to acknowledge that . . . [Stalinism] was rooted not in the backwardness of the country and not in the imperialist environment, but in the congenital incapacity of the proletariat to become a ruling class. Then it would be necessary to establish in retrospect that . . . the present USSR was the precursor of a new and universal system of exploitation. . . . However onerous this . . . perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of accomplishing its mission . . . nothing else would remain but to recognize that the socialist program . . . had petered out as a Utopia.”
Thus at the close of his own life Trotsky stood on the threshold of a new epoch, and what he glimpsed was not the promised land, but an Egypt of perpetual bondage. With a stoicism that still evokes admiration he proceeded to outline the practical consequences to be drawn by those who, like himself, were determined to remain faithful to the cause—albeit hopeless—of the oppressed and the exploited: if Communism was an illusion “it is self-evident that . . . a new minimum program would be required—to defend the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic system.” Coming from Trotsky, these are poignant words—among the most poignant ever uttered by a political leader in exile. They testify both to his intellectual candor and to his moral stature. Yet they also represent a devastating judgment upon his (and Lenin’s) earlier certainties. If revolution and counter-revolution alike were about to issue in totalitarianism, the entire edifice of belief built upon the October Revolution lay in ruins.
That the dismantling of Utopia is by now in fact complete, would be the judgment of most present-day Marxian socialists, though not of Mr. Deutscher, who on this subject exudes a confident optimism of almost Khrushchevian proportions. The point would scarcely be worth pursuing further were it not that it is frequently confused with a quite extraneous topic, namely the role of the revolutionary intellectual in the labor movement. It would seem that the confusion is at least in part semantic and has to do with the different uses to which the term “intellectual” can be put. Because Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Kautsky, the Webbs, Bernard Shaw, Leon Blum, and other notable figures in the history of socialism, were all intellectuals (what else should they have been?); and because in our own age the so-called “technical intelligentsia” is indisputably at the core of the various bureaucratic-collectivist regimes which currently occupy so large a part in everyone’s thinking—it has become fashionable to argue from the first circumstance to the second, as though every 19th-century theorist at his desk had been a precursor of present-day industrial society. Because socialism stands for planning, and because planners have to work with scientists and technologists, the conclusion is drawn that the intelligentsia as such is responsible for totalitarianism! Even the most democratic and libertarian writers are saddled—a century or more after their passing—with responsibility for regimes which do their best to make the work of the critical intellect impossible!
In reality the equation “intellectuals=authoritarianism” won’t hold up, if only because intellectuals are plainly at the core of all the liberalizing and “revisionist” tendencies in the Soviet orbit and elsewhere. It is true to say, however, that the relationship of the intelligentsia to the labor movement was not clearly worked out by the Marxists, while other socialist schools (with the partial exception of the Fabians) never bothered their heads about it. What Lenin had to say was two-edged, and lent itself as easily to gross flattery of the supposedly faultless working class as to authoritarian whip-cracking over its head. Stalinism even managed to combine both features in a single system: the “toiler” was solemnly upheld as a model, while in everyday matters his basic rights (such as the right to strike) were filched away. Trotsky for his part never wearied of belaboring his own supporters for being too remote from the masses: quite oblivious to the fact that the masses preferred Stalin (even, in countries like France), and that practically all his own adherents were intellectuals. This situation has persisted: the half-dozen Trotskyist sects which in recent years have somehow managed to acquire a following were all started by intellectuals and largely staffed by them, while the workers showed little interest. A sociology of the Trotskyist movement, if it is ever undertaken, will doubtless disclose that the few working-class adherents it has had were displaced Syndicalists who could find no other sect to attach themselves to. As an organization of the “revolutionary proletariat,” Trotskyism has been as complete a failure as was Anarchism, and largely for the same reason: the industrial working class in advanced countries is not “revolutionary”—at any rate not in the sense that Trotsky (unconsciously following Bakunin rather than Marx in this matter) associated with the term. The final judgment on Trotsky as founder, leader, and almost sole existing theorist of the “Fourth International” must be that he launched it at the very moment when all the certainties it embodied had gone into the melting-pot.
It has been necessary to dwell at some length on Trotsky’s role in Communist history, and on Trotskyism as a political phenomenon. But after all one is talking about the biography of a Russian revolutionary in the tradition of Herzen, Bakunin, and all those other “romantic exiles” to whom Mr. E. H. Carr years ago devoted an enthralling study (a lot more fascinating than some of his subsequent volumes). The essential “Russianness” of Trotsky and his circle is well conveyed by Mr. Deutscher; it introduces an element of human warmth, and even lends a note of charm to what is on the whole a very somber story. Trotsky possessed all the Russian gift for self-expression combined with a very Jewish talent for constant intellectual ratiocination; and though it is tiresome to go on laboring the obvious, it must be evident that as a person he could have walked out of the pages of any of the great Russian novels. Mr. Deutscher is aware of the advantage this gives a biographer, and he rarely falters in his endeavor to bring the flavor of Trotsky’s personality home to the reader. Sentimentality is kept in check, but there is no lack of graphic detail, and one or two minor surprises await the reader who has the patience to work his way through these three volumes (of which, incidentally, the third and last is the most revealing, as well as the most stylish). Inevitably, as the tale unfolds, from the almost halcyon stay on Prinkipo island in 1929-33, via the wretched wanderings around Europe in the middle 30′s, to the final agony in Mexico, the picture becomes progressively bleaker. But it is only near the close, with disaster crowding in from every side, and the assassin lurking on the doorstep, that the reader begins to share the author’s sense of re-living a tragedy of almost Shakespearan dimensions. Then Trotsky himself began to reflect upon his sufferings and the fate of those nearest to him—the son whom Stalin had exiled to Siberia, the other son who had died in Paris, the daughter who had taken her life, the burden borne by his wife, his faithful companion of so many misfortunes—and for the first time something like self-pity creeps in. He had been reading the autobiography of a famed 17th-century heretic, the Archpriest Avakuum, banished as an “Old Believer” by the Orthodox Church to Siberia where his children died of disease and starvation, and later brought back to Moscow to be burnt at the stake. The thought crossed his mind that after all very little had changed in three centuries:
Concerning the blows that have fallen to our lot, I reminded Natasha the other day of the life of the Archpriest Avakuum. They were stumbling on together to Siberia, the rebellious priest and his faithful spouse. Their feet sank in the snow, and the poor exhausted woman kept falling into snowdrifts. Avakuum relates: “And I came up, and she, poor soul, began to reproach me, saying: ‘How long, archpriest, is the suffering to be?’ And I said, ‘Markovna, unto our very death.’ And she, with a sigh, answered ‘So be it, Petrovich, let us be getting on our way.’”
The quotation is from Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, an account of his wanderings published in 1958 by Harvard, with a preface by Mr. Max Schachtman: one of the veterans of the Trotskyist movement, though today (to Mr. Deutscher’s evident disapproval) a Social-Democrat. It is a very moving document, rather more moving than Mr. Deutscher’s biography, though perhaps that is an unfair remark. It also has the advantage of being short (not much more than 150 pages), and should be read by everyone interested in Trotsky’s personality. It is a great pity that it came much too late for Mr. Edmund Wilson to incorporate in his book To The Finland Station, whose account of Trotsky in exile is based on the 1930 Autobiography. In that year Trotsky was still hopeful, for real disaster had not yet struck. In 1935, the year of the Diary, he already had some cause to wonder about his resemblance to the Archpriest Avakuum, for in that year he was expelled from France, refused entry by most other countries, and finally allowed into Norway, only to be interned a year later under humiliating conditions, due to Soviet pressure on the rather philistinely fearful Norwegian Labor government. By 1940—when Mr. Deutscher perforce ends his tale—Trotsky still had some political illusions, but none about his own prospects. While waiting for the assassin to strike, he noted (in a brief Testament appended to the Diary): “My high (and still rising) blood pressure is deceiving those near me about my actual condition. I am active and able to work, but the end is evidently near.” It came exactly six months later, on August 20, 1940, in an unexpected form, but under circumstances already pointing to the early extinction of his physical no less than his political life. The testament closes (after some remarks about suicide) with the words: “But whatever may be the circumstances of my death, I shall die with unshaken faith in the Communist future. This faith in man and his future gives me even now such power of resistance as cannot be given by any religion.” He was wrong, of course: the faith he kept was very precisely of the religious kind.
Over the whole scene of the Diary—as indeed over Mr. Deutscher’s final volume—there hangs the shadow of an approaching catastrophe. In December 1934, Sergei Kirov, the party boss of Leningrad, had been murdered—if one can believe Khrushchev, at the instigation of none other than Stalin—and the Kremlin reacted with a calculated ferocity that boded ill for the future (though it did not daunt the Webbs, who were just then about to compose their paean to the democratization of Russia under Stalin). The Diary reflects the atmosphere on the eve of the great bloodbath of 1936-8. Early in 1935 Trotsky’s first wife, and his younger son from a second marriage, were deported to Siberia, though neither had been politically active. Soon, more arrests and deportations followed, mostly of old friends. The diarist recorded these calamities, and then mused idly over the fate of the Czar’s family—apparently without noticing the connection. On April 9-10, 1935, a lengthy entry records that the decision in 1918 to execute not merely the Czar but his entire family was taken by the Politburo in Trotsky’s absence, and that on hearing of it he voiced some mild surprise (his own preference had been for a public trial of Nicholas II alone). The note proceeds:
“The Czar’s family fell victim to that principle which constitutes the axis of monarchy: dynastic succession.” On the following page there is a brief, troubled, entry: “No news about Seryozha (his younger son), and perhaps there won’t be any for a long time.” There wasn’t. Nor was there any further hint that the author of these reflections had a premonition of destiny recoiling upon his head.
Trotsky’s self-examination—notably in the Diary—is an impossibly difficult subject, because the view he took of himself and his role was at once so penetrating and so wrong-headed. Gifted with a capacious intellect and with great imaginative powers, he saw quite clearly that he represented a lost cause. At the same time he was convinced that history would vindicate him in the not very distant future. Every now and then he could claim to have been proved right. Thus when the Norwegian government in 1936 first interned him, and then expelled him in distressing circumstances, he told the placid Labor Ministers (they included Mr. Trygve Lie, who comes out very badly) in thundering tones that before long it would be their turn to seek refuge in exile. When the blow fell in 1940 and the Norwegian government did have to flee before the invading Germans, Trotsky might have had cause to feel that his prophecy had come true, the more so since he had told Trygve Lie to his face, in the presence of all his assembled officials, that the day was near when the Nazis would drive them all out! (King Haakon, who led the sad procession in 1940, is reported to have reminded his bedraggled Ministers of “Trotsky’s curse.”)
On other occasions he was less successful as a prophet, and the Diary as a whole is shot through with the sort of exasperated nagging that comes naturally to political exiles: all his enemies must be cretins or criminals, and so, it turns out, were most of his friends. If they were not cowardly traitors, they failed through lack of imagination. All the Socialists without exception were useless, while the official Communists were slaves of the Kremlin—that “historically doomed clique” of “degenerate and moronic traitors,” who unfortunately possessed power, while he had none. Meanwhile fascism was on the march, not merely in France (this was 1935), but in England too (!), and “bourgeois democracy” clearly was about to give up the ghost. Indeed, imbecility and corruption were spreading everywhere. “It is hard to imagine a more painful occupation than reading Leon Blum.” “In Belgium, Spaak has become a Minister. A miserable character!” “Claude Farrere, whom I mentioned the other day, has been elected to the Academy. What a revolting pack of old clowns!” Western literature was mostly decadent; Soviet literature was unreadable; only the classics were still tolerable. Politically, there was no ray of hope anywhere: France was rapidly going to pieces, while England was merely “the last ward in the European lunatic asylum.” The smaller countries were stupidly philistine, and their leaders a collection of buffoons. Much of this unfortunately was true, but he missed all the factors in the situation that did not fit his prepossessions: notably the underlying strength of simple things like patriotism and democracy, which later asserted themselves in the various Resistance movements. Indeed, on the assumptions made in the Diary and in his later writings, the Resistance was incomprehensible, the more so since it was predominantly non-Communist and actuated by sentiments that had no place in his thinking.
In fact the tide had begun to turn in the very month of his death, August 1940. It is a pity that he did not live long enough to take account of England’s resistance under Churchill—a Tory romantic with whom temperamentally (though not intellectually) he had something in common. About this time, too, his erstwhile follower Andre Malraux changed sides and attached himself to de Gaulle: the fascist challenge was beginning to produce its own antidote, but the counter-movement was also a movement away from Leninism and the myth of the October Revolution. Since 1945 the elites of Western Europe have been in possession of their own home-made myth: that of the Resistance. This is one reason—perhaps the major reason—why the whole tradition associated with Trotsky has now faded out.
It will not be revived by Mr. Deutscher’s biography, and not only because on its political side his book is very largely a discreetly veiled apology for Stalin (and even more for Stalin’s heirs). The fact is that Bolshevism is now as dead as Jacobinism, though there are still some parts of the world where the original tragedy is being re-enacted (in tragi-comic form, to paraphrase Marx). Nothing can revive the illusions brought to birth and then destroyed by the October Revolution; not even the romantic halo which continues to surround the life and death of Leon Trotsky. Who, in this day and age, is going to believe in a proletarian revolution giving rise to a classless society, when the only revolutions actually under way are so clearly neither proletarian nor classless? For that matter, what Marxist is ever again going to entrust his faith to the proletariat: a dwindling minority in the West, and a passive object of manipulation in the East? Even Communists will have to do better if they want their cause to retain some relevance. (In practice they are increasingly coming to rely on the very “labor aristocracy” of technicians and skilled workers whom Lenin and Trotsky anathematized for so many years.) And behind the official facade of “Communism” in the Soviet orbit, there emerges with ever greater clarity the outline of a new society in which the planners hold control, while the technicians do their bidding, and the workers are left to applaud. If this is socialism, it is certainly not classless. The last word lies with those erstwhile followers of Trotsky who broke away from him when they glimpsed the truth. Still it remains that by 1940 Trotsky had wrung from himself the admission that a long, dark, totalitarian night seemed about to precede the dawn, and that “the slaves” would need someone to defend them. Whatever honor Communism still retains was saved by its arch-heresiarch.
1 The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940 by Isaac Deutscher, Oxford, 543 pp., $9.50.